June 9, 2017 / 3:03 PM / 5 months ago

Quickstepping Ostapenko is a woman in a hurry

PARIS (Reuters) - To compare French Open finalist Jelena Ostapenko’s preferred tennis style to ballroom dancing, just conjure up an image of the quickstep and speed it up by a factor of 10.

Tennis - French Open - Roland Garros, Paris, France - June 8, 2017 Latvia's Jelena Ostapenko celebrates winning her semi final match against Switzerland's Timea Bacsinszky Reuters / Gonzalo Fuentes

Quick feet, quick swings, high velocity - that is the way the 20-year-old from Riga goes about her business.

The livewire Latvian has electrified Roland Garros this year with a refreshingly simple game plan. While other players take the slow waltz to victory, Ostapenko is a woman in a hurry.

Claycourt tennis can often become a battle of wills - two players waiting patiently for the other to make a false step.

Ostapenko, the youngest French Open finalist since Ana Ivanovic 10 years ago, takes a riskier approach, striking every ball as if she is trying to separate it from its fluffy coat.

Pundits have been taken aback by Ostapenko’s carefree approach in only her second French Open - one that saw her clock up 50 clean winners in her semi-final victory over Timea Bacsinszky, having belted 38 past former world number one Caroline Wozniacki in the previous round.

In six rounds, she has executed 245 clean winners - 26 percent of all the points she has played. Romanian claycourt specialist Simona Halep, who stands between her and an inprobable first grand slam title on Saturday, has hit 118.

The perception is that Ostapenko, coached by Spain’s former top-20 player Anabel Medina Garrigues, has a game plan limited to trying to belt every ball to oblivion.

But that would be doing her a disservice. There is method in the apparent madness and while she did commit 45 unforced errors against Bacsinszky, they are all part of the package.

While there are the occasional meltdowns - she looks, in the words of former champion Maria Sharapova, “like Bambi on ice” when asked to volley from close quarters - the pressure her attacking style puts on her opponents is immense.

There is barely a second to catch a breath - such is the barrage hurtling across the net.

Some doubt whether such an approach can seriously upset Halep, especially in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a French open final with the eyes of the world watching.

“She came out like a thunderstorm in that third set (against Bacsinszky),” seven-times champion Chris Evert said.

“But not many players win their first final in a grand slam. I would be surprised if she came out and can hit winners all over the court like she has been. But I might be wrong.”

World number 47 Ostapenko’s average forehand speed at the French Open is 76mph - only a couple of clicks behind Rafa Nadal’s and ahead of men’s world number one Andy Murray.

”Since I started to play tennis, I had a possibility to play

aggressive,” Ostapenko, who celebrated her birthday on Thursday, told reporters. “That’s my game style. But yesterday when I knew that my forehand was faster, I was a little bit surprised.”

Tennis players rarely make headline news in the Baltic state of Latvia, where ice hockey and basketball are more popular.

Ernests Gulbis enjoyed some fame when he reached the semi-finals in Paris but Ostapenko has taken it to a whole new level after becoming her country’s first grand slam finalist.

She even received a phone call from Latvia’s president.

“He actually called my mom. So that’s what she told me. I mean, because nobody knows my phone number.”

Win on Saturday and the phone might be ringing non-stop.

Reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by Mark Heinrich

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